Can A Party Change Perceptions Of Anacostia?

Nahal Tavangar / @NahalTav

About 1,200 people attended the fourth annual Cherry Blast party in Anacostia.

Trapeze artists hovered above a crowd. A band played electronic music as green lasers flashed through the room. Nearby, people created silk-screened T-shirts, a video installation played against the wall and the crowd tossed a large, clear plastic bubble filled with pink balloons in the air.

The annual Cherry Blast event on Saturday night was in many ways a creative, warehouse party. It pulled together all sorts of artistic and musical spectacles that attracted a racially diverse crowd of 1,200 willing to pay $10 a ticket to enter.

But this party didn’t happen in Northwest or near gentrifying H Street NE. Cherry Blast, produced by The Pink Line Project, took place in a vacant police evidence warehouse in Anacostia, and drew attendees largely from other parts of town, many of whom were young and white.

Anacostia has a rich history, but in recent years the neighborhood has developed a reputation as dangerous and poor, a perception that local activists have been battling. It’s a mostly black neighborhood that doesn’t typically attract many white people.

Cherry Blast comes on the heels of Lumen8Anacostia, a weekend of art events and pop-ups held throughout the neighborhood. These events have given people, who normally don’t trek east of the Anacostia River, a reason to visit the neighborhood. But in doing so, they’ve raised questions about race and class.

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Art Driving Gentrification?

hellomarkers! / Flickr

This sculpture is on top of an Anacostia warehouse

The District is funding a series of art events housed in vacant spaces in downtown Anacostia. The idea behind Lumen8Anacostia: to make use of under-used spaces, and also spark some much-needed economic growth in Anacostia. The Ward 8 neighborhood has already seen some professionals moving in, but nowhere near to the same degree as neighborhoods west of the river.

On Tuesday, local blog Greater Greater Washington tweeted that the Lumen8Anacostia could signal “a new dawn for Anacostia” and Washington City Paper pondered whether Anacostia could be the next Williamsburg. That sparked a conversation between locals, including Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry, about gentrification, displacement, race and the arts.

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Pushing the Homeless East of the River?

Tom Bridge / Flickr

A view of Anacostia from west of the river.

On Monday, we wrote about how a nonprofit’s plans to open a transitional housing building in downtown Anacostia for homeless women has sparked protests by neighbors. Some feel Anacostia is becoming a “dumping ground” for social services, and this is hurting the neighborhood’s chances for economic development.

DCentric commenter Ann-Marie Watt, who is opposed to the project run by Calvary Women’s Services, had this to add:

A couple of years ago, I was volunteering and spoke with a homeless man in McPherson Square park.  He said that he was an advocate for the homeless and operated a blog on homelessness issues.  He was sooo angry at DC and other groups moving their services to Anacostia.  He said that people were trying to get rid of the homeless population by moving them to the other side of the river.  He also said that it would be more difficult to get back to the other side every day.  So, what about that?…

Calvary is planning to relocate from Chinatown to Anacostia. It’s true that more job opportunities exist west of the Anacostia River than east of it. Traveling across the river can be timely or expensive; one alternative is the DC Circulator, which recently started running a rapid $1 bus line connecting Anacostia to the Potomac Avenue Metro across the river.

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Protesting Social Service Groups in the Name of Economic Development

tedeytan / Flickr

Anacostia's commercial corridor is filled with vacancies.

A vocal group of Anacostia residents have been rallying against a nonprofit’s plans to open transitory housing along the neighborhood’s business corridor. Calvary Women’s Services hopes to open along Good Hope Road, SE by summer, and provide semi-permanent housing for 50 formerly homeless women.

On the one hand, the objections can be viewed as typical NIMBYism. There’s also fear that placing transitory housing on an underutilized commercial corridor will cripple future economic development — while many of D.C.’s neighborhoods have undergone a transformation in which vacant buildings are converted into coffee shops and sit-down restaurants, Anacostia has lagged behind.

But the opposition in Anacostia is complex, which many residents say has become a dumping ground for social services because of the community’s demographics.

“There’s this perception about Anacostia that it’s all a bunch of poor black people who are out here struggling, and that they’d be happy to have [more social services] here,” said Nikki Peele, Congress Heights on the Rise blogger.

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Gentrification? Try Gentefication.

Leo Reynolds / Flickr

Gentrification, the "G" word, can be a very loaded term.

We write plenty about gentrification here on DCentric, which can be a very loaded word. But what about “gentefication?” According to our sister blog Multi-American, gentefication is “the process of upwardly mobile Latinos, typically second-generation and beyond, investing in and returning to the old neighborhood.” The “gente” comes from the Spanish word for “people.”

Gentefication is being used to describe what’s happening in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, where Latino investors are developing low-income areas, with businesses attracting second-generation and English-speaking crowds. Some low-income locals of Mexican descent are worried they’ll be displaced by all of this development, even if the business owners are Latino, too.

In D.C., gentrification has taken hold in working class black and Latino neighborhoods, and most of D.C.’s well-to-do newcomers are white; in a city that’s mostly black, 60 percent of households making more than $75,000 are white, according to census data. Therefore the word “gentrification” in D.C. tends to imply neighborhood changes have to do with class and race.

But gentrification, even in the District, isn’t always about race. Take Anacostia, where the gentrification that’s starting to occur is class-based; professional African Americans are settling in the predominately black, low-income area. And just as in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, some of these newcomers have roots in the city and are returning to the places they grew up. So is gentrification the best way to describe what’s happening in Anacostia, or do we need a new word, too?

The Surprising History of Anacostia

Anacostia is a predominately African American area east of the river. But it wasn’t always that way.

The two neighborhoods that make up Anacostia’s historic core are Uniontown, which was home to white Navy Yard workers, and Hillsdale, an all black neighborhood where newly freed slaves settled and eventually became quite well-to-do. Over time, white flight, urban blight and desegregation changed the face of Anacostia.

The fascinating history of Anacostia was featured on Thursday’s Kojo Nnamndi Show (listen to the entire segment here). Guests such as Dianne Dale, who authored a book on the community’s history, spoke about the importance of preserving her neighborhood’s past. Check out this video in which she talks about how it was like growing up in Anacostia:

More Development Planned East of the River

John / Flickr

The west campus of St. Elizabeths in Southeast D.C. will be the site of the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters.

Neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are undergoing changes, albeit they aren’t taking place as rapidly as west of the river.

Higher-income folks slowly moving into east of the river communities, which are primarily low-income, are contributing to those changes. But massive development projects will likely have more of an immediate, and major, impact on the area.

Much of that development will take awhile; the transformation of St. Elizabeths Campus into the new U.S. Coast Guard headquarters likely won’t be complete until after 2016. But other projects, meant to piggy-back off of the St. Elizabeths project, may come to the neighborhood before then. The Washington Post reports that plans are being finalized for the $25 million redevelopment of 2235 Shannon Place SE from a police evidence warehouse into a mixed-use office building:

The office project is the first step in a long-term, transformational overhaul of downtown Anacostia being planned by a partnership between District-based Curtis Properties — which owns large chunks of land there — and Four Points, a D.C. developer that is making its name on projects in emerging neighborhoods.

Such projects will bring many daytime office workers east of the river, people who want options for lunch and who may want to relocate to nearby neighborhoods to be close to work. Some are already bracing for the changes. The District’s Department of Transportation has plans to expand D.C. Circulator to roll past St. Elizabeths Campus in the next few years.

Is Anacostia Being Gentrified?

The word “gentrification” elicits certain images, particularly in D.C: dog parks, coffee shops and bike lanes. But the mere presence of such things doesn’t mean residents are being displaced.

The Washington Post tried to also dispel another stereotypical marker of gentrification –  white people — by profiling a group of middle and upper income African Americans who have moved into (or back) to Anacostia:

“I used to think it was about race — when white people moved into a black neighborhood,” said lawyer Charles Wilson, 35, president of the Historic Anacostia Block Association. (Wilson ran against Marion S. Barry Jr. in the 2008 Ward 8 City Council race.) “Then, I looked up the word. It’s when a middle-class person moves into a poor neighborhood, and I realized, I am a gentrifier. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t like that word. It makes so many people uncomfortable. The g-word.”

“Actually, I thought it was if you see a white guy in Anacostia, listening to an iPod, jogging or walking a dog!” joked Sariane Leigh, putting her hand on her hip and waving a sweet potato fry for emphasis. Leigh, 33, works by day helping low-income communities access education. In her free time, she writes a blog called “Anacostia Yogi,” and teaches “Soul Flow Yoga” at the Hillcrest Recreation Center on Denver Avenue in Southeast.


Elvert Barnes / Flickr

These residents chose Anacostia over other neighborhoods because they like living east of the river, and many longtime residents say they are happy to see professional blacks moving into black neighborhoods, the Post reports. Those profiled are active in the community, such as Courtney Davis who published a children’s books meant to bolster the image of kids in Ward 8. “I’m fighting for this neighborhood,” Davis told the Post. “It still has some work to do. But I’m not here to make a quick buck and run off.”

But are these new, wealthier residents making it too expensive for low-income residents to remain in the neighborhood? Typically, gentrification is thought of not just when people with more money move into a working class neighborhood; it’s also when that movement raises housing prices and prices out low-income residents. And by-and-large, displacement isn’t occurring in communities east of the Anacostia River, according to Roderick Harrison, a Howard University professor and senior fellow at the Joint Center.

“Probably the more appropriate term is ‘succession,’” he said. “People have been moving out of wards 7 and 8 because once you can afford to do so, you do. People feel they’re improving their lives with moves to Prince George’s County.”

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Expand American University to Ward 8?

Flickr: Matthew Hurst

What could an AU expansion do for Ward 8?

Lydia DePillis over at Housing Complex puts forth an interesting proposition: if neighbors around the proposed American University East Campus expansion project find it so objectionable, put it in Ward 8:

… American University would be perfectly suited to Anacostia and Congress Heights: MLK [Avenue] would fill up with coffeeshops and bars, students would have all the low-cost housing they could ask for, and local residents could benefit from jobs that don’t require a high-level security clearance–not to mention the opportunities of a credible institution of higher learning in their backyard.

In exchange, the proposed Department of Homeland Security at St. Elizabeths could instead go to Ward 3.

Given the high unemployment rate in Ward 8 — 18.6 percent — compared to 3.6 percent in Ward 3, maybe the switch isn’t such a bad idea.

Local Tweets About NPR and Anacostia

I used Storify, a neat tool which aggregates tweets (or other snippets of social media) and presents them in one tidy package to pull together local reactions to yesterday’s Morning Edition segment on Anacostia. What you see above is a screen shot of the collection. The full, interactive “story” is below the jump:

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